Published in 1907, Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World is considered by many to be the original dystopian science-fiction novel.
Called prophetic by both Benedict XVI and Francis, the novel calls to mind the writing of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and H.G. Wells. However, it presents a deeply Catholic worldview and a chilling vision of a society that has abandoned God and is searching for salvation from the State.
The story focuses on events surrounding the rise of the Antichrist, a mysterious Masonic politician from America named Julian Felsenburgh. His success in ending a world war earns him universal admiration. This allows him to usher in a global communist, secular-humanist world government of which he becomes the president. In this new world order, collectivism triumphs over the sanctity of the individual, and the exaltation of scientific progress trumps religious "superstition" (which is blamed for humanity's violent history). After millennia of war, individualism and religion, an enlightened utopia is seemingly at hand.
However, the Church stands in the way of this new era. It holds on to the supposedly archaic and superstitious notion of serving a law higher than the State, and therefore poses an existential threat to the new world order. Felsenburgh decrees that this last vestige of the old world must be destroyed, and Christians are cut off from society like cancerous cells, an inversion of Christ's teaching that "a little yeast leavens the whole lump." With the Church forced underground, believers are forced to choose between martyrdom and apostasy — a test that many fail.
Benson provides prescient insights into a society without religion as its guiding moral force. He predicted the way that ideologies would fill the religious void in peoples' lives, and that a culture of death and utilitarianism would be inevitable if the sanctity of the individual were diminished. Euthanasia is a prominent feature of his dystopia (he likely could not have envisioned how far we would go with abortion). Early in the story, the protagonist, a priest named Percy Franklin, witnesses a vehicular accident that severely injures a woman. However, she isn't treated by paramedics but rather by euthanizers, who promptly kill her.
This is a society with no regard for the dignity of individual life and that has no place for suffering in its worldview. Benson understood that a society that did not view life as sacred would increasingly view killing as a necessity. In our day, abortion and euthanasia masquerade as "rights" but are really tools of utilitarianism, serving the "greater good" by denying life to vulnerable individuals.
In his preface, Benson wrote:
I am perfectly aware that this is a terribly sensational book. … But I did not know how else to express the principles I desired (and which I passionately believe to be true) except by producing their lines to a sensational point. I have tried, however, not to scream unduly loud, and to retain, so far as possible, reverence and consideration for the opinions of other people.
The fact that Benson withheld his desire "to scream" reveals his dismay at the direction the West was heading in 1907. Like Orwell and Huxley after him, he discerned the disturbing ways in which anti-Christian trends would lead to collectivism, authoritarianism, violence and the banishment of truth. Lord of the World is an alarmingly prescient read in 2022, as elites tout globalism as the surest means of securing peace, progress and moral superiority over people of past ages.
Benson also foresaw that communism would lead to tyranny and bloodshed, as myriad modern examples demonstrate. It was evident to him that if individual dignity is not paramount, then human life would be trampled on by rulers pursuing their own interests under the banner of collectivism.
However, his most important insight is that man's religious impulses survive even if true religion is taken away. In the novel, worship is transferred from the Triune God to Felsenburgh, who is adored in Masonic liturgies and whose every word transfixes his listeners. Benson's world has, as St. Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans, "exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator."
Felsenburgh, rather than Christ, becomes the new template for humanity, an inverted Incarnation in which man becomes "divine" and leads the way to a supposedly enlightened era. Of course, the Christians who stand in the way must be dealt with violently, a blatant contradiction of Felsenburgh’s peaceful humanist rhetoric. This is always the way with communism; a peaceful utopia is imminent, if only we can brutally destroy all the people who don't want to be a part of it.
Strangely, the modern West is in many ways more bizarre and hostile to Christian truth than Benson could have foreseen. The humanists in Lord of the World would never dismantle the concepts of marriage and gender (the furthest the novel goes with this is a depiction of a childless marriage). Benson accurately predicts our Culture of Death, authoritarian tendencies and disconnect from the past that gives way to supreme arrogance, but the notion of objective truth is not questioned.
The society of Benson's novel suppresses the truth of God, believing instead in the "truth" of humanism and Felsenburgh. Today's progressives recoil at the notion of truth itself — unless it serves to justify their own base desires. Simply put, the novel is prophetic, but, being old, it didn't predict the West's current levels of irrationality and depravity. It's a strange thing to read a dystopian novel and to find yourself thinking that the society in which you live is, in many ways, worse than that of the story.
In Lord of the World, Benson presents a Church that is the last stronghold of light and charity in a world of dark indifference, a Church that receives wisdom not through human reasoning and government policies but through divine revelation and surrender to God's will. This is exemplified by the journey of Mabel Brand, the wife of a communist MP, who comes to perceive the hypocrisy of Felsenburgh's world government, with its violence and blind faith in Felsenburgh. Mabel becomes disillusioned with the politician's lies and questions whether the Church she once despised may be her only hope.
In our day, as the madness of progressive culture accelerates and is exposed, there will be people who feel like Mabel. They feel displaced and concerned about the future, yearning for the old world they took for granted or perhaps never experienced. The more the mask comes off anti-Christian ideologies, revealing their demonic nature, the more sensible people will be repelled by them and search for meaning and belonging. This was the case amid the brutality and immorality of ancient Rome, where the Church offered hope to a bleak world. May it also be so today.